Monday, 10 February 2014

The 3 Must Have Annual Flowers For Your Organic Vegetable Bed!

Ruby Tuesday as a wee puppy, stops to smell the flowers in my potager

I have long been an organic gardener, since the early days when 'green' was simply a colour. Therefore, I have also been using companion planting techniques for years and years, as companion planting is simply one part of organic gardening, helping us grow bigger, better, healthier and happier edibles.

Why should you add annual flowers to your vegetable garden?

Annuals are very beneficial as companion plants in your garden. They deter bad bugs, attract good bugs, attract pollinators, and/or work as lure plants. Their pollen, nectar and seeds bring in hummingbirds, butterflies, and birds to help with pest control and pollination. They help your plants thrive and may even make your vegetables taste better .. Plus, they add beauty, colour and fragrance to your garden, while being inexpensive and so much easier to use than all kinds of sprays and tonics.

Here are the top 3 annuals that no organic vegetable bed should ever be without...

Harlequin heirloom marigold
1. Marigolds - The marigold is the most common of flowers and yet is the workhorse of the companion garden. Plant marigolds everywhere in your vegetable garden, especially around your tomatoes, peppers, squash, and cucumbers. There is no fruit or vegetable that will not flourish with a marigold growing beside it.

Marigolds deter aphids, nematodes (small worms in the soil), beetles, and maggots. They also encourage better growth in your edibles, likely because both the roots and the foliage are safe from nearly all pests! They also draw in the beneficial insects that control the bad bugs. French marigolds are more effective at controlling nematodes than the African ones are.

Be warned, however, spider mites may be drawn to marigolds (I have never had an issue with them in over 25 years of growing with marigolds though), so if you tend to have problems with spider mites, plant chrysanthemums instead.... or do like I do, plant cilantro, chives and/or parsley along with the marigolds to repel all kinds of bad bugs ; )  

I like to use the French marigolds as they are bushier and stay short and tight, making for a really nice border plant or mini hedge. I also tend to use mostly red and/or orange varieties, as I am not a huge fan of yellow in my summer garden. The Bonanza, Disco, and Duranga series of marigolds are my faves, I especially love Red Disco. Though, must admit that I also really love the heirloom varieties of marigolds, like Jester or Harlequin, that grow 2 to 3 feet tall and sprawl madly, spilling over the beds into the pathways. Something about happy, thriving plants, spilling and tumbling all over, that makes me super happy.

Lemon Gem tagetes (aka signets) are also marigolds. They have ferny foliage and single blossoms, look very delicate but are amazing workhorses in the greenhouse or garden beds to repel tomato hornworm, nematodes, whitefly, and other garden pests.  

Lemon Gem Tagetes
Yes, these guys are marigolds, too.

Cherries Jubilee Nasturtiums

2. Nasturtiums - Nasturtiums are great companion plants to grow near your radishes, cucumbers, melons, and the entire brassica family. Tomatoes, too, if you have room, but my tomatoes are always surrounded by marigolds, parsley and basil ; )
Nasturtiums deter aphids, potato bugs and squash bugs, white flies (esp in the greenhouse), and cucumber beetles.
They are often used as a trap crop for black aphids, drawing the bugs to them instead of to the vegetables, allowing you to discard the bugs by cutting back the plant.   

Plus, the flowers are super tasty in salads, having a nice, light, peppery flavour, while the seeds can be pickled and used as capers.   

Nasturtium's come in great r
ange of hues, from soft pastels to vibrant and popping! Yellows, oranges, creamy whites, burnished reds, bright reds... Cherries Jubilee is my absolute favourite! I mostly grow the clumping varieties as I like them spilling over the sides of my raised beds, but there are also trailing varieties that are perfect for baskets, trellises, or sprawling through your beds.

Two different colours of Nasturtiums.
Love the burnished, coppery red one!  

Sweet Allysum
3. Sweet Allysum - Is a draw for hoverflies and ladybugs, the beneficial insects that eat aphids and caterpillars. Their sweet scent adds perfume to the garden while the pollen attracts pollinators to keep your garden growing and producing.

Alyssum self seeds so will come back year after year, is dainty and attractive in the garden. Plant it in all the bare spots in and around your garden to prevent weeds. It thrives in the heat as long as watered well, breaks up soil, and spreads readily. Has medicinal and protective uses, too.

White alyssum is the hardiest and the most attractive to the beneficial insects while the bees like the purple hues the best.

Sweet Alyssum in the strawberry bed gave  me the best crop of berries yet!  

Those three are the most important companion plants and should be scattered throughout your garden with carefree abandon.

In addition, here are a few more fabulous flowers for your organic gardening needs .... in order of importance and efficacy, in my most humble opinion.

4. Calendula - Useful everywhere and for everything, just like the marigold. Is just as effective at deterring bugs and attracting beneficials, plus self seeds readily. I love growing marigolds in summer, but I let the calendula go like mad in spring and fall, as they thrive in cool temps while the marigolds do not. The petals are also useful additions to ointments, oils, soaps, and shampoos.

5. Zinnia's - Zinnia's are, bar-none, my very favourite veggie garden additions! They are late summer bloomers and so add colour to the garden as others start to peter off. They come in a huge array of sizes, shapes and colours and are rarely bothered by pests or diseases. Is my favourite go to flower.

Zinnias bring in butterflies, birds and bees, plus deter both tomato worms and cucumber beetles. They attract hoverflies and other beneficial insects to the garden, especially helpful at the end of summer while the aphids start to attack your cabbages and kale. Plant loads of zinnias.

Shrubland Rose Scented Geranium
6. Geraniums - Plant near grape vines, roses, cabbage, corn and beets to lure away pests and to repel caterpillars! They add colour and fragrance to your garden and the foliage of the scented ones can be used for cooking and baking. They also are known to repel spider mites, so plant one or place a potted one by affected plants. I have a love affair with geraniums, they have always been my favourite annual in pots, planters and baskets.    

7. Sunflowers - Plant by corn to lure away aphids. The ants and the aphids can crawl around on the sunflower and cause no real damage to the flowers. Plant by cucumbers to enhance the flavour and as a support for the cukes to climb up. I have been told that if you grow your pole beans up and around sunflowers, they will stunt the growth of the bean but promote earlier production by a few weeks. Therefore, in my opinion, is well worth your while to plant a few beans to climb up your sunflowers for the earlier harvest, while you wait for your main crop to come through.

There are all kinds of additional flowers that will also repel bad bugs, attract good bugs, draw in pollinators, or butterflies, and birds. The more flower varieties you add to your garden, the healthier your garden will be. A garden full of birds that eat bugs, bees that pollinate, and good bugs that eat bad bugs, is free of pest and disease, plus loaded with flourishing edibles.

Additional annuals and perennials to consider ... dianthus, roses, Queen Anne's Lace, snapdragons, pansies, violas, Johnny Jump-ups. nicotiana, single dahlias, and yarrow.
Herbs and their flowers are also very important companion plants ... borage, basil, chives, parsley, rosemary, chamomile, tansy, feverfew, dill, cilantro, oregano, and thyme.

For more information about companion planting see these earlier blog posts ...


Monday, 3 February 2014

February Ramblings

"The February sunshine steeps your boughs and tints the buds and swells the leaves within."
- William C. Bryant
February sometimes seems like the longest of months for many gardeners. We are all raring to go, to seed and plant and dig in the soil. Days are getting longer and brighter. Seed catalogues and magazines keep flowing in, flaunting gardens bursting with colourful flowers and veggies.... And yet, sadly, the cool, wet, rainy season is still in full swing here on the island while snow covers the ground in the rest of the country. Snow storms, blizzards, hail, ice storms, and snow, plus more snow, are not just a possibility in February, they are almost a guarantee.  

So, what's a gardener to do?
We've already talked about all the planning, journaling and designing you can do while you browse through the catalogues. Evaluating what worked last year and what didn't, what to change and what to trial this year. All that still applies, I continue to add to and subtract from my list... mostly I add ... and add.

Try to restrain yourself from starting your seeds too early.
Plan on paper, dream in journals, pin on Pinterest, but please do not start planting your warm weather seeds (like tomatoes) yet. Early seedlings will not fruit earlier but will instead be weak, spindly, stretched out plants by the time you actually go to plant them outside, sometime around May long week-end, or early June.
To know when to start seeding, look a the back of the seed package. There you will find listed how many weeks before last frost you should start those particular seeds. Here in Nanaimo our last frost date is April 28th. As the majority of seeds are started 4 to 8 weeks before last frost, that means that next month, mid to late March, is when you will be doing most of your seeding.   
To see what we all can/should be seeding now, in the month of February, see the 'what to do now' list below.

In the meantime, if you are really itching to sow seeds now and do not want to worry about messes indoors, lanky plants, pest problems, etc..  look into winter-sowing, it is both fun and fulfilling.
Here is just one link on how to do it but there are a great many out there.

For fun... Forcing Rhubarb

If you want earlier rhubarb, when you see the pink nubs beginning to poke through the ground, cover the crown with a flower pot, garbage can, or other dark container. If it has holes in it, fill those in so that no light gets through.
You will be able to harvest your rhubarb much earlier, it will be sweet and less stringy. Do not force the same plant year after year though, or it will die. Have two plants and alternate forcing them annually.
My Sweet Purple Asparagus roots
If you can get nice, big, plump roots like this
you will begin harvesting your asparagus a whole year earlier!
 Ordering perennial vegetables, seed potatoes, fruiting shrubs, etc...
- I am, of course, hoping that anyone who lives near me, comes to the the Nitty Gritty Greenhouse to pick these things up from me as I am all about the food crops ; ) Plus, I will talk your ear off about how to best plant them and care for them, too ; )
- However, I must say, mail order is a great place to get great asparagus crowns, horseradish roots, blueberry shrubs, raspberry canes, spuds, etc.. 
As long as you order from a reputable company, they ship them out as soon as they get them so they are fresh, they come as bare roots so cost less, and you have a great selection to choose from. You also get to stay nice and warm indoors, order with a cup of coffee in hand, and simply wait for them to arrive at your doorstep. Some of these companies now also provide really great how-to plant instructions, ensuring that you have great success and are happy with their service and product.   

What to do this month ....

- Check on your over-wintering bulbs, tubers, rhizomes and corms. If all looks well, mist the peat moss a bit and cover up for another few weeks. If any look mouldy, shrivelled, or rotten, remove them immediately to prevent spreading the problem to the rest of the bulbs. If you see new growth, spindly, pale green, yellow or white, you have no choice but to take that bulb and plant it up. It will not stop growing, so best thing to do is to pot it up and put it into a bright yet cool-ish location, water, and watch it grow. That pale stem will green up nicely with access to light, water and nutrients in the soil.     
- Begin fertilising your indoor plants again this month. Continue to feed every two weeks until October.
- Desperate for blooms or colour? Pick some forsythia, lilac, apple, cherry or other ornamental flowering tree or shrub branches. Place into a vase, with water, in a bright room, and you will have blooms in just a few weeks time.
- Order your summer blooming bulbs, tubers, corms now. Things like your dahlias, gladiolas, canna lilies, calla lilies, begonias, eucomis (pineapple) ... Is also a good time to order perennials through mail order companies. You get more bang for your buck when you buy them bare root, even with the added shipping costs. I have a good long order on the go ; )  

In the garden
- Deadhead your pansies, pinching them back if they are leggy. The spring flowering bulbs are beginning to poke their heads through the ground, so pinching back your pansies now will have them blooming at the same time as your bulbs.
- Prune your fruit trees.
- Spray fruit trees, fruiting shrubs, roses, cotoneaster hedges, etc.. with a Dormant Spray (horticultural oil/lime sulfer mix) to kill over-wintering pests and diseases. The oil smothers eggs and pests while the sulfer is a natural fungicide. Spray before bud break! and follow directions on the package.  
- Cover any garden beds that you want to plant up early with plastic or cloches, to warm the soil.
- Sow radishes and spinach out in the garden, cover with frost blankets, cold frames, or hoops.
- When your peas and sweet peas start to come up this month, cover with frost blankets or branches, etc.. to protect the tender, fresh, new, green growth from the birds and rabbits. They really enjoy the taste of those tasty new seedlings, trust me ;)

In the greenhouse, sunroom, porch, cold frame ...
- Bring your potted up strawberries into a warmer and brighter location so that they start to fruit earlier.
- Bring your spring planters in for earlier blooms.
- Plant up your rhubarb in a pot and bring in to enjoy several weeks earlier.
- Towards the end of the month, plant your dahlias, canna lilies, calla lilies, begonias, pots for earlier blooms. Transplant into the garden in May.

What to start now...
- Start your cruciferous crops indoors, things like collards, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower.
- Start Brussels sprouts, onion seeds, leeks, artichokes, and kale.
- Salad greens and spinach. Stick to greens that are cold hardy for planting in Feb and March.   
- Herbs to start now are chives, parsley, lavender, coriander, nepeta (catnip), and mint.
- Flowers from seed .... petunias, geraniums, verbena, pansies and violas, lobelia, snapdragons, sweet peas...

In all actuality, the flowers that you can start now, from seed, are too numerous to mention. Check the back of your packages. Please remember though, that unless you have a great light source, you will not have saved any money by starting them yourself. Tall, stretched-out, spindly, weak seedlings will not look good, nor will they thrive. A south facing window is not enough, you will need to use grow lights set just a few inches above your seedlings.... or then, winter sow!

Tulips and heuchera coming to life in early February

On a more personal note...
Here are some pics to show how things are coming along at the new location of the Nitty Gritty Greenhouse and Potager. Please don't be frightened, lol, all will be well.  

The greenhouse is up, but not quite running. Just a few more days should have it fully functioning again so that I can clean it up and begin to set it up with tables, seeding tables, potting bench.... All the bits and bobs that make it ready to roll, my second home.

The yard is a muddy mess as we are in our rainy winter season.
However, considering that when we moved here, just 5 months ago, half of the back yard was one big, massive, open pit... (almost the entire area in this picture), I would say that we have come a long way ; )
Said pit has been completely filled in, requiring 50 truck loads of fill to do so. Then, just recently, Digger Dave took advantage of our dry weather and levelled the entire back yard... so is now ready to be seeded, sodded, covered with mulch, gravel, etc...   

The far corner (from the gate to the corner and up to the greenhouse) is where the raised bed potager is going to be. It will be in full sight and access of the greenhouse. Whew, the pressure will be on for me to keep things looking sharp all year long, esp in spring as you all visit the greenhouse ; )

The garlic is coming up nicely.
I had to create a temporary barrier around this garden bed, as little miss Ruby Tuesday seems to really enjoy dancing in it.

  Ruby Tuesday and Kalinda
Here are my two garden and greenhouse helpers, hard at work sweeping up the sand....

Heather in full bloom, growing at our new location.
Yes, that truly is a sea of black plastic all around it.

In loving memory of my dad, Reino Virtanen
December 8th, 1942 - January 7th, 2014
Miss you so very much, every single day.
Love you, dad.


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